MOSCOW: A Soyuz craft adorned with a portrait of the first man in space docked with the International Space Station on Thursday, days before the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's pioneering flight.
U.S. astronaut Ron Garan and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyayev and Andrey Borisenko floated through the hatch to the warm welcome of three crew already aboard the orbital station after the docking, which NASA said took place at 3:09 AM Moscow time (2309 GMT Wednesday).
Space Station Commander, cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev, called it an honour for all on board to be “on the front lines” for the anniversary fanfare.
“Gagarin is more than just an idol now, but a symbol of the beginning of a new era,” Kondratyev said from orbit, in comments posted by the Russian space agency Roskomos.
“Gagarin's name is a symbol of the conquest of space, a symbol of the dreams of generations of people to fly from our planet beyond the bounds of what is possible,” he said.
The Soyuz TMA-21, with a picture of Gagarin on the side, blasted off hours before dawn on Tuesday from Russia's long-secret Baikonur launch pad in Kazakhstan, where the cosmonaut's flight began on April 12, 1961.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was two years old at the time of the flight, will visit Gagarin's hometown some 150 km west of Moscow on Thursday.
Moscow is also expecting to welcome the heads of all the world's space agencies for celebrations on Tuesday and talks on the future of human space flight after the space station is retired, due in 2020.
The cramped Soyuz does not look very different from the Soviet craft that took Gagarin around Earth on a 108-minute, single-orbit flight that stunned the world and raised the stakes in the US-Soviet space race.
It was “a giant leap in our evolution as a species”, Garan said in his last blog post before lift off.
Garan, who grew up believing he was related to the Soviet cosmonaut (via a great grandfather who emigrated to the United States under the name Ivan Gagarin) said Gagarin's voyage set the stage for cooperation between nuclear-armed superpowers.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the world is a safer and more peaceful place today than it would be otherwise if we had not taken that first step into space,” Garan blogged.
“Even at the height of the Cold War, Russia and the U.S. still somehow found a way to cooperate during the Apollo-Soyuz program, which accomplished the first docking of U.S. and Russian spacecraft” in 1975.
Very early in life, Soyuz TMA-21 commander Samokutyayev also felt the draw of Gagarin's flight, a mission that propelled space exploration from the pages of fantasy novels to reality.
Schoolmates jokingly called him “Sasha Gagarin” because he was always playing with a toy rocket, he said.
Gagarin, who was just 27 years old when he flew around the Earth, died seven years later in a crash during a training flight in March 1968. The exact cause of the crash remains shrouded in mystery.
In the superstitious, tradition-steeped cosmonaut corps, each crew stops the bus shuttling them toward the launchpad to step out and solemnly urinate on the right rear bus tyre.
And now the Americans flying on the Soyuz, have retraced Gagarin's steps at every launch, crying: “Poyekhali! - Let's go!”